Sometimes, the best decision may be no decision at all.
For example, following an earnest debate at a recent board meeting of the Minnesota & Dakotas chapter of the Jewish Community Relations Council, members — by a narrow margin — decided that the organization should take no position on the proposed nuclear deal between the United States and Iran.
Eric Schwartz, a board member and dean of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, led the argument that it would be best if the organization remained neutral on the deal. “Given the wide variety of views in the community on the [Iran] agreement, should an organization that represents an entire community take a position, or should it be a forum where people of all points of view can express their positions?” Schwartz asked.
“No position” isn’t the sort of deal that gets huge media coverage, though. It appears to be an honest position, though, given that it reflects the fact that there is not a universal opinion among American Jews about whether the deal should go forward. Nationally, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which is the umbrella group for JCRC chapters around the country, has not taken a position, either.
No organization speaks for all
In a recent op-ed piece in the Washington Post, Todd Gitlin, chairman of the Ph.D. communications program at Columbia University, and Steven Cohen, a research professor at Hebrew Union College, said that there has been a large “rift” between the so-called “U.S. Jewish leadership” and American Jews.
Large organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee have strongly opposed the deal, leaving the impression among many Americans that most American Jews are opposed. But polling done by Cohen shows that a majority of Jews actually support the proposed deal.
Cohen and Gitlin said the reasons for the disconnect between Jewish organizations and individuals likely center around the fact that leaders of the Jewish organizations are both older and wealthier than the Jewish population as a whole, and thus tend to be more conservative.
But the rift should serve as a reminder that no organization speaks for all — or even a majority — of the people it claims to represent. No Jewish organization speaks for all Jews just as no Christian organization speaks for all Christians.
And the rift should also serve as a reminder that, especially on complex issues such as this treaty deal, most of us are caught in a muddled middle. Even while those with strong — even strident — positions get the headlines. As do those with the money.
One example: Republican former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman is teaming with former Sen. Joseph Lieberman in creating the American Security Initiative to raise millions in order to purchase television ads to pressure politicians to oppose the agreement. (The ads are running in North Dakota, but not Minnesota. One ad features an Iraq war veteran with facial wounds saying that those who support the deal “will have blood on their hands.”)
‘People I respect … feel differently’
That’s the sort of rhetoric many are attempting to avoid.
Michael Latz, rabbi at Shir Tikvah, a progressive reform congregation in Minneapolis, points to the position taken by the Union for Reform Judaism, which has a following of 1.5 million people. That organization said the focus of U.S. Jews and politicians in both the U.S. and Israel must “focus on the day after.”
Whether the deal is ultimately agreed to or rejected, the statement argues, “it is essential that this debate not be allowed to create a lasting rift between Israel and the U.S., between North American Jews and Israelis or among American Jews.”
Latz noted that this is not the sort of position that has made a media dent, even in the oh-so-serious New York Times. But it shows that people are taking the issue seriously and understand that people of good will can have opposite views.
Latz is a liberal, and is among 340 rabbis who signed a letter supporting the deal. The signees, by the way, represented a denominational cross section of American Judaism. But on this issue Latz is no demagogue.
“People I love and deeply respect feel differently than I do on this issue,” he said. He understands the differences because the issue is not a black and white one in his mind either. He says he “reluctantly has come to supporting the treaty,” though he doesn’t believe it’s perfect, doesn’t trust Iran and is “deeply committed to Israel.’’
But the bottom line, in his mind, is that “it’s the best chance we have.’’
The conversation over the treaty is ongoing and heartfelt in the Twin Cities Jewish community, Latz said. He believes that there are more people who support the agreement than not.
The responsibility to be informed
Still, there is a broader question that crosses all demographic lines. How much should each of us be expected to understand about an international agreement such as this? As Latz says, “I can do a Bar Mitzvah, but what do I know about a centrifuge?’’
Schwartz, the JCRC board member, said that in a democracy we all have “a responsibility to have informed perspectives and opinions.” There are two ways to go about this, in his mind. We can each study issues carefully, listen to experts and make an assessment of our own. Or, we put our faith in political leaders we trust and give them “your proxy” vote on difficult issues. In either case, Schwartz said, it’s important to separate partisanship from policy.
When the debate about the JCRC taking a position on the treaty took place, the first vote was on a motion to oppose the treaty. That was defeated. Then the “neutral” position was supported.
“I would hesitate to characterize positions of many of the members,” said Schwartz. “They all had their own reasons for voting as they did.’’